Washington Naval Conference

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WASHINGTON NAVAL CONFERENCE, officially the International Conference on Naval Limitation, was called by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes to end a burgeoning naval race and stabilize power relationships in the Pacific. It took place from 12 November 1921 to 6 February 1922. Other U.S. delegates included Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Oscar W. Underwood and former secretary of state Elihu Root. At the opening session, Hughes stunned his audience by calling for a ten-year freeze on capital ship construction (which included battleships), and scrapping 1.8 million tons of ships, naming actual ships in his address. Subsequently, nine treaties were drafted and signed by the participants. The Four-Power Treaty of 13 December 1921, involving the United States, Great Britain, France, and Japan (the Big Four), committed the signatories to respect each other's rights over island possessions in the Pacific and in essence superseded the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902. Another Big Four treaty pledged each country to consult the others in the event of "aggressive action" by another power. The Five-Power Naval Treaty of 6 February 1922 declared a ten-year holiday on capital ship construction and fixed the ratio of capital ship tonnage between the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy at 5:5:3: 1.67:1.67. It made no mention of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, for the conference could reach no agreement concerning such items. The Nine-Power Treaty, also signed on 6 February, pledged all conference participants (the Big Four, Italy, Portugal, China, Belgium, and the Netherlands) to affirm the Open Door principle ("equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations throughout the territory of China"); they also agreed to respect "the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China," a clause that abrogated the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917. A fifth treaty outlawed poison gases and pledged protection for civilians and noncombatants during submarine bombardment. The four remaining treaties dealt with increased Chinese sovereignty, including the withdrawal of Japan from Shantung, and involved Japanese recognition of American cable rights on Yap.

The conference's accomplishments, although less than some contemporary leaders claimed, were substantial. The post–World War I capital ships arms race was halted by the first naval disarmament agreement among the major powers. Because of the extensive scrapping of naval tonnage by the United States, Great Britain, and Japan and the agreements between the Big Four on the Pacific, general security in the area was much enhanced.


Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference, 1921–1922. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Goldstein, Erik, and John H. Maurer, eds. The Washington Conference, 1921–22: Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor. Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 1994.

Murfett, Malcolm H. "Look Back in Anger: The Western Powers and the Washington Conference of 1921–22." In Arms Limitation and Disarmament: Restraints on War, 1899–1939. Edited by Brian J. C. McKercher. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992.

Justus D.Doenecke

John R.Probert

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Washington Naval Conference

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Washington Naval Conference